One chilly February afternoon, I walked into my 5th-grade history class carrying a huge tri-fold poster board under the baggy sleeves of my oversized bubble jacket. My mom bought me big clothes so I would “grow into them” but this is totally irrelevant to the story.
I sat at my desk and watched every student, white, black and everything in between, present their Black History Month project. Finally, my name was called.
“Ronnie, it’s your turn”. Actually, let me back up. My teacher was a good acquaintance of my father and knew my mother. So don’t be surprised when you read her reaction. You’re going to wonder why the heck is a 5th-grade teacher talking like this but I am indeed from rural Alabama where older women tend to “put down their religion” from time to time.
I stood up and walked to the front of the class to present. Everyone couldn’t help but notice the smirk on my face.
“I did my Black History report on Shaka Zulu”.
The black kids in the class laughed. The white kids in the class looked confused. After deciding against Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and a handful of other leaders, I decided to go with Shaka Zulu because the recurring miniseries on the History Channel was a favorite of mine. I knew exactly what I was doing when I made this the topic of my project.
My teacher yelled “That’s dumb as hell! Who let you do this!? I’m calling your mama”.
[BTW mom I never told you this story so if you’re reading this let’s let bygones be bygones]
Me actually attempting to do my Black History Month project on Shaka Zulu isn’t the story here. It’s the “why?” behind it.
Over half of the class did their projects on Martin Luther King Jr. All of their projects had facts recited from The World Encyclopedia. Not expecting extensive research from 5th graders but sheesh, can we hear something new?
Yes, we know he did a march in Selma. Yes, we know about the speech in Washington DC. Yes, we know he wanted little black and white boys and girls to hold hands and sing kumbaya but why must he be the face of a movement when the efforts of so many others go unrecognized?
I decided early on that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t represent me. I knew little of the Civil Rights movement but what I did know is that I preferred Malcolm X’s rhetoric over Martin’s. I knew enough to notice that it was odd that Martin Luther King had a national holiday but Malcolm X only had a paragraph in every history book I came across in my life.
For much of my life, I carried these same beliefs. Martin Luther King represented the docile negro. To me, he was a great orator who leads with a lofty vocabulary and Southern Baptist cadence, not with actual actions. Little did I know, I felt this way because this was the image of MLK that was projected upon me. It took me doing research of my own during my adult years to see what MLK was really about. And boy was I wrong about him.
Present day, we’re in the second wave (or Second Awakening, rather) of the Civil Rights movement. Whenever there’s a protest, peaceful or otherwise, people always claim to be disgusted by the actions.
“This is not the way MLK would do it,” they say.
My favorite is, “If Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive today, what would he say?”
Unfortunately, we will never know because he passed away in his sleep during his stay at Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th, 1968 (totally joking, he was assassinated).
What will always be true, though, is that if you want to know where you’re heading, you can easily look back. We don’t know what MLK would say verbatim, but we do have some examples of what he might say. I mean…he’s already said it.
There’s a belief that America is post-racial. Sure, slavery was abolished roughly 151 years ago, which is one year less than Morgan Freeman has been on this planet. While it seems like a long time ago, if you have a grandparent who is still living in their 90s, their parents were more than likely one step removed away from slavery. Slavery is ingrained in the very fabric of our nation. The language is still in the constitution. The effects are still present today.
Let’s see what MLK had to say about this.
“Slavery happened SO long ago. Why can’t you move on?”
“Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”
Brother Martin, thank you for mentioning capitalism. The disparity in our great nation is often approached in a “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” approach. If we can do it, so can you. Through time, poverty has been pushed as the face of the American negro, this has caused the African American race to be looked down upon. The common enemy in America, for lack of better words,is the American families that acquired their wealth during the height of the slave trade and kept a hold to that power. They have placed a wedge between the African American communities and other disenfranchised communities.
“You’re living in poverty; your schools are no good; you have no jobs; 58 percent of your youth is unemployed.”-America’s first orange presidential candidate.
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. (That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.
-Conclusion to The Selma March
The notion that African-Americans are in this position because of our doing is troublesome. Yes, there are problems within our communities but there are problems within any community, especially impoverished ones. Black voices simply want to be heard in this country, regardless of our perceived social status. We want to let people know that we too indeed matter.
Hold please, Dr. Martin is on the line again. He’d like to speak:
“Black Lives Matter is racist. ALL lives matter”
“I contend that the cry of “Black Power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro.”
Black Lives Matter, just like any other movement, is often met with the notion that “you have enough, what are you complaining about?”. Instead of listening to the complaints of the people, the issues are often ignored.
“I don’t see race. We all need to come together.” The “Moderate” Problem
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans…These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
When the dialogue is one-sided, action must be taken. This could be sitting at the bar of a “white’s only” diner. It could be not giving up a seat to a white passenger although you were seated there first. It could be a march across a bridge named after a Ku Klux Klansman. Or, it could be something as simple as taking a knee during the National Anthem. I’ve already talked about Colin’s exercise of his 1st amendment rights. Although his protest was simple, he was often told that he went about it the wrong way. Instead of providing a better way to conduct this protest, an effort is often made to deflect it.
“That was a very inappropriate moment to stage a protest. There is a time and a place for it. I support the message but not the method”
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Failure to acknowledge the problem is as much of a problem as the problem itself. It is the civil duty of those who share a certain level of status of privilege to speak up and keep the dialogue going. When the dialogue is one-sided, people feel like they aren’t being heard. When you’re being ignored and feel helpless, you retaliate.
“Martin Luther King led peaceful protests, what would he say about these riots?”
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
March 14, 1968
I’m not here to endorse rioting but what I can say is that you can’t tell an angry person how to process those emotions. It’s very insulting to tell an angry person how to channel that anger, especially if you’re ignoring their problems. Now apply this to an entire group of people.
So what would Martin Luther King, Jr. say about current civil unrest in our nation? Everything he’s already said.
We must not let the legacy of MLK be one of pacifism but activism. He believed in non-violence but he also believed that the conversation of race in America should be open and honest. If we want people to conduct themselves in the manner he would have, we must tell his whole story, not frame it to our benefit. No, he wouldn’t be ashamed at the protests or encouraged people not to take a stand. He would be marching with people today, with his arms interlocked on the front lines. Just like he did decades ago.
MLK gave his life to lay the blueprint for racial progress. I hope everyone can dig deeper into his teachings to gain the insight I did.
Thank you, Dr. King, for being a brilliant man and a leader for not only your generation but many others beyond yours. Thank you for being so peaceful and patient in the face of opposition. Thank you for being virtuous and an example of who we should all be.
And also, thank you for being a damn good billiards player. Seriously, these photos are boss.
BTW, if you want a conclusion to my anecdote from before, I was allowed to redo my project a week later. I got a B-.